Tag Archives: Faith

Love and Sin

My dear friends,

I am so blessed today to be able to share with you by the Spirit of God the grace and love God has poured out for us all in abundance. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35) and I have no greater way of showing you love than to share with you the way God has changed my life and is making us into the image of His Son Jesus Christ. I don’t know what I’m going to be yet, but I know what I was and I’m so grateful I’m not that anymore. He led me through a lot yesterday, today, and by faith he will lead me tomorrow. I’m here to assure you today that there is a way of life that works. It comes by trusting in, believing in, and clinging to Jesus in faith.

 

Romans 6:28 tells us that “the wages of sin is death”. I can tell you that when I rebelled against God again and again it came with consequences. I had to live through those consequences and I don’t want to have to do that ever again. I was not ignorant of sin, I was ignorant of the goodness of God. I did not really trust God, if I had really trusted him I would have become truly honest with myself and I would have confessed my true state before God and come to Christ in true repentance. Instead, for many years I tried to apply religion and intellectual learning to my life in order to find a quick easy solution to why I found more pleasure in sin than in God’s love. I kept turning to people to fix me, and they would try, but I still loved my sin more than God because I believed that God could not love me, my heart was too dark, I was too bent, and I was not worthy of anyone’s love.

 

I had people come along and try to tell me, “Awww Chris, you’re not that bad. It’ll get better. Buck up little guy.” And I wanted to believe them, I really did. But every time I sinned I proved to myself anew again that shame was my master, that self-pity was my bitter choice of drink, and that anarchical pride was my god. Now all of us are different. There are so many variations in the ways we talk, move, think, and express ourselves. But the human condition is the same. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)

 

Many people get hung up over what that means. They hang on the idea of little innocent babies going to hell for not being baptized. So they don’t like that word sin anymore or what it implies. They want to believe that people are basically good. That the human condition at its core is a blank slate, and that with the right amount of positive cognitive stimuli and productive environmental conditions anyone can arrive at their full human potential.

 

We have two centuries of scientific progress and pursuit of learning to prove that the human condition is sound. So I ask you, where are these perfect human beings? What nation can we turn to on earth that has successfully rid itself of all poverty, all sickness, all suffering, all fear, all fatigue, and has also opened its doors so that the rest of the world can immigrate there?

 

I tried to free myself from the notion of God after repeated attempts to get God to give me a wonder drug that would keep me from destroying myself. I spent hours alone in the recesses of my mind. I had a little cave in my head that I hid in. On the outside I would go to college, go to work, go to church, go to the beach, go to the park, walk down the street. But between my ears I was lost inside myself. I was bound by self pity, resentment, rage, anger and fear. I was in and out of counseling, therapy, and support groups.

 

I did the right things over and over for a while, but then it was back to my cave. I had friends that tried so hard to help but they just couldn’t understand. “Chris is a Christian, what’s wrong with him? He knows the truth. What’s wrong with him?” So inside, between my ears, I was on the run from God, and was planning my ultimate escape.

 

My problem was that I was too much of a coward to do on the outside what it was I did everyday on the inside. I was never a cutter, someone who uses a knife on themselves. But in my mind I hated myself. I had so much faith in how awful I was, and I was living by that faith. It hurts to talk about it now, but I believe it might help someone here who can identify, to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there too.”

 

“So how did you move out of it?” you ask. I should begin by saying that when I describe what I went through I am not identifying myself with any particular 12 step fellowship. I can only refer to some experiences and allude to material, but I have never been in Alcoholics Anonymous. So let me begin. At first I tried the 12 steps of AA self-styled. I got myself a copy of the Serenity New Testament that is like a companion to 12 step literature and I worked through the steps in an afternoon and thought, “This is simple. I can write my first and fourth step right now.” All the other steps I knew I already believed, so I just fast-tracked it, audited the course, wrote myself the diploma and felt better.

 

Stupid. I was right back into anarchical pride and the same old behavior within a short time. But the thought of the first step (“I admitted that I was powerless over x, that my life had become unmanageable”) stayed with me. Am I really so self-centered? I didn’t want to think about that. So for many years thereafter I dodged the question. Then one day, I just couldn’t dodge the question anymore. I knew after a lot of pain and heart-ache, after putting the people I loved through hell and getting to the point that no one could trust me anymore, I realized, yes, I am truly that selfish. I wanted to BE God that badly. And so finally, instead of agreeing that maybe a recovery program was helpful for some really messed up people, I started into recover for myself. I made it through the door.

 

For a while that’s where I stayed. I admitted I was licked. It took a while for me to come to believe that God was greater than my sin and that he wanted to restore me to sanity. And it took an even longer time for me to turn my will and life over to God’s care as I understood him, because I wasn’t convinced He wanted my will, and my life or that He CARED, and I certainly didn’t understand Him. It was all I could do to keep coming back. I kept listening. I finally learned to shut up an listen. In time I had fewer and fewer excuses and more and more resolve to admit how selfish I was. Then I came to the place where I listened to an agnostic tell me about how the God that worked for him really loved him and had his best interests in mind. I finally reasoned that if a guy who didn’t claim to understand God perfectly was willing to just do what it took to get sober and learned along the way that a higher power loved him, what was wrong with me? I wanted that God too! I wanted the God that was for me as sick as I was.

 

And then I remembered this passage from the Bible, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man ;though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

 

Immediately the devil came along and told me, “Nawww, you’re a hypocrite. A liar! A con! No one will trust you ever again. You can’t sin and go to church and repent as many times as you did and have God trust you. You’re too much of a sinner.” But then I started reading the Bible again. It says that as sick as I was, God showed how much He loved me because Christ died for me.

 

And I will call heaven and earth and God himself as my witness that the same is true for you! Christ died for you! God is for you! God even loves back-stabbing, rumor mongering, crooked liars who go to church and then go home and spread all kinds of hateful gossip. Why? Because he sees them at their worst, all soaped up and in their best hats on Sunday morning. And he desires that they repent and come to stop playing God and playing church and get off the sick little throne between their ears and accept His LOVE!

 

After a few years, the God who loved me, who was for me, did something I would have never thought to hope for. See, when I got into recovery I considered that my calling. I was content to go to meetings and work the steps and pray each day to help the next person who’s still sick. But God started calling me to be a pastor in the very ministry I had run away from years before. I said to God, “If this is really your will you’re gonna have to help me, because I don’t really see it. You got to show my wife and my family. You got to show my pastors and my sponsor.” I thought that would keep Him off my back. But then he did all that.

 

Everyone gave me the green light. And I wanted to tell God, “Naw you’re crazy. I can’t work with my family in full time ministry down there.” But then God asked, “Do you trust me?” And I knew that I had learned through trial and error that God loved me and that He had a purpose for my life. I knew that I loved homeless people and people in recovery and preaching the gospel and praying for the sick, and there was this great need down here. So we trusted God and stepped out in faith with no PLAN B. There was no retirement plan. No benefits package. No insurance. No hedging my bets. Just God’s question, “Do you trust me?” It was a funny question, because before recovery I was always angry that I couldn’t be trusted. I wanted people to trust me but I knew I couldn’t trust myself.

 

My whole life has become one of trust in God. That was how he intended it all along. It’s one thing to say, “Yeah, I trust God.” But when I’m living in my head with all kinds of resentment, anger and shame I don’t trust him. So learning to trust God means, even when we’re scared of bed bugs, TB, running out of gas, that guy looks like he wants to kill me, those drug pushers on the corner, those property owners that consider us a nuisance, those bills that are too big and the donations that are too little, my security, my confidence, my trust is in God!

 

God IS everything that He requires. He wants me to be full of his love because He is all the love I need. Look again at 1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV). Let’s read this aloud together:

1 “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

 

If sin is rebellion against God in big and small ways, trying to BE God ourselves, then love is its opposite. Galatians 5:23 tells us “there is no law against” the fruits of the Spirit, the first of which is love. Matthew 22:36-40 gives us the secret of a life that works, and its all about love! Jesus was asked:

36 “Teacher,  which is the great commandment in the Law ?” 37 And He said to him, ” ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

 

No one but God can command that we love Him with such totality. No one but God can command that we love our neighbor as ourselves. His commands are in keeping with his intention in creating us. We were meant to love. Now if I went to the inventor of the first athletic shoe and I said, “I love to use your product as a bowl for potato salad”, he might say to me, “But why would you do that? It’s a shoe. Meant to be worn on the feet. Why not just get a bowl and spoon?”

And when we go to God and say, “Humans have been around for a while. They’re great for making money, growing food, pleasuring themselves, building tall buildings, for staring into electronic devices, and for using as targets for drone strikes,” we are reminded that this is not what humans are really for. We’re made for loving God. We’re made for loving each other.

 

Dr. Kent M. Keith penned “the Paradoxical Commandments,” and they were hung on the wall of Missionaries of Charity in CalcuttaIndia.

“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

I used to ask all the time, “What’s the use!?!” Why would we do anything of these things “anyway”? I can only tell you why I do them now. It’s because Jesus Christ died for this hypocrite to show him the love of God. To live for anything else but the love of God is a wasted life indeed.

 

Some good things are very hard, but they are worth doing, so don’t quit. Don’t get distracted, don’t lose heart, and don’t give up. These good things may not win you honor, and in fact they may cause you to be dishonored. Don’t give up. What you do for Christ lasts. So do all things for love of Christ. Christ’s love will help you do this good for Him. His love will envelope you and make you what he desires.

 

Love in Christ,

 

Rev. Chris L. Rice

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New Sermon: How Can We Live This Way?

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“How can we live this way?
Five Principles of Faith Based Community” by Chris Rice

As followers of Jesus Christ we believe that He did not come to establish a new religion, so that in believing certain things good members of society could feel better about themselves in a troubled world. Neither is the Christian faith some attempt simply to reckon with our mortality. To follow Jesus and partake in the Spirit of God is to be transformed completely for the purpose of knowing and doing the will of God. That will of God involves doing what Jesus said, expecting that if the powers persecuted and killed Jesus and his disciples, we ourselves must face opposition, misunderstanding, and hatred. We consider ourselves blessed in such circumstances. But how do we live this way? How do we make a life for ourselves and our families? How do we disciple others when we encounter such opposition and endure privation?
A friend of mine left the ministry recently, and she left a note in the form of a prayer. In it she related that she felt like there must be a way that we can live together under better circumstances, so that people would not mistake us for the homeless. Surely God doesn’t want his children mistaken for social rejects, does he? That’s a good question. And I believe the answer lies in God’s Word. I want to teach today on Five Principles of Living in a Faith Based Community. We live in an age where people are constantly on the move. And many Christian faith communities endure regular transitions in their membership. I am often teaching a new set of people, as the others travel to our other NLEC outreach locations. But even more people feel that after a short period of time, they don’t want to live in this faith based community anymore.
In introducing these principles I want to inform you who are new about what you will encounter in seeking to live your life for Jesus in close proximity to other believers. New Life Evangelistic Center is different from many other churches in that we are a residential program. Most of our staff are people who serve as full time volunteers, receiving room and board, relying on daily donations of money, food and clothing to meet their needs. NLEC is also an evangelistic nonprofit that relies solely on individual donations for income. It owns and operates TV stations, radio stations, and websites to spread the message of the gospel and educate about the Christian life. We operate a small renewable energy business and teach how to live sustainably through Missouri Renewable Energy. We pray and advocate for prisoners and those on death row. For us the Christian life is about being present for others. It is about creatively and spontaneously sharing as any have need. But truthfully, we ourselves are ever in need.
Sometimes I have people walk in off the street and assure me, “Rev. Rice, don’t you worry. I’m about to get millions of dollars, and as soon as I do I’m going to write you a check so that you’ll never have to ask for money again.” But they don’t understand that for us, to be alive is to glorify God, not to witness to wealth. Glorifying God means finding new ways to share with people in need, so to spell this out: even if God pays all our bills off miraculously tonight, it means he’s going to open up new areas of ministry tomorrow.
The first principle of living like we do is faith in Jesus Christ. It all begins with a Calling from God to follow Jesus. Faith is only as great as what it is placed in. We are faithful only by being true to Jesus. We are faithless when we trust anyone or anything else instead of him. Jesus is the object, Author and Perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:2) We must not assume that our faith is too weak or too strong, too small or too big. Jesus says, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20).
This faith is great because of who our faith is in, who we are faithful to. If you are feeling powerless, don’t blame your faith, turn to Jesus. Center yourself on who He is and what he is doing. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, NIV)
The second principle is precarity. What do I mean by precarity? It means a condition of existence without predictability or security. It can mean intermittent employment or underemployment, having barely enough or just enough of everything. Another example of precarity is having to live with difficult people. Here at 1411 Locust the women staff live together on the same floor with the guests who come in off the street. They share the same bathroom and shower facilities. They eat the same meals. They often wear the same clothes they picked out of the free store. The guys here also wear donated clothes. Sometimes we laugh and point knowingly at each other’s shirts because a big donation of those just came in.
Now the only way this life can be beautiful in the long term is if we have a point of reference. Who is our reference point? Say it out loud: Jesus Christ. Jesus is himself the bread of heaven, the true meat and drink given for the life of the world. In Numbers 11:1-23 we get a picture of the kind of striving Moses endured in trying to live in tents with lots of people and provide for their needs. He spoke his mind to God: “The people I am with number six hundred thousand on foot; and you say, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat for a whole month’! Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?” The LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”
Here at NLEC our paid employees who have their own bills to pay, have learned like the volunteers, that faith based ministry is about precarity. We all get on our knees and pray for daily bread, and payroll finally gets made. Faith based living involves precarity. It is the now and the not yet. It is the posture of gratitude with the expectation of deliverance. The refusal to bow followed by the flames of fire and resignation to the will of God. We come to understand that God knows our needs before we ask, but he wants us to ask and not assume we know where the money comes from.
Dorothy Day was a Christian woman who lived as a full time volunteer in the Catholic Worker community. She lived in old farm houses and run down tenements in the slums with other volunteers. She did this for around five decades. She left with us writings from herself and others that demonstrate what we’re trying to live. She wrote: “True poverty is rare,” a saintly priest writes to us from Martinique. “Nowadays communities are good, I am sure, but they are mistaken about poverty. They accept, admit on principle, poverty, but everything must be good and strong, buildings must be fireproof, Precarity is rejected everywhere, and precarity is an essential element of poverty. That has been forgotten. Here we want precarity in everything except the church. (…) Precarity enables us to help very much the poor. When a community is always building, and enlarging, and embellishing, which is good in itself, there is nothing left over for the poor. We have no right to do this as long as there are slums and breadlines somewhere. (“Poverty and Precarity” by Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, May 1952)
In a precarious faith based life I learn these things too:
1. I am much more than what I possess.
2. Money does not make leisure. I don’t have to spend money in order to have fun.
3. Learning to serve lets me receive love and be loved.
4. When the heat is on I learn what I am made of.
5. I choose in the moment whether to believe God or fear the worst. God is enough, fear says run or fight.
The third principle of faith based living is trust. Whenever you become part of a group of people the first thing you should expect is to not know what is really going on, and secondly expect that it will take time to learn to trust. The inverse is true also. If someone new joins the group, don’t think you really know them, and allow them time to get to know you. All of us get hurt. We are vulnerable. Being alone is more comfortable than sharing yourself, know that about yourself and others.
When Jesus said, “What ever you desire men should do to you, do this for them” I believe he understood that trust is fostered over time. Trust can be destroyed very quickly, but it takes time to be won. Working with the homeless and poor, you come to understand that many people have so many wounds inside that they cannot bring themselves to trust another person. The question for you is not whether others will trust you, but whether you will trust that God can use you.
I have had a unique life, in that I grew up in this faith based community and then spent fourteen formative years growing up as an adult in another one as well. I am learning that when my trust in another person is violated, my faith in Christ lets me continue to serve in community. It’s a beautiful fairy tale that no one gets hurt emotionally and spiritually in church. The beauty is in the reality that God forgives and heals the very same people if they will stick around. But ours is the age of mental and physical banishment. We break off from each other over the silliest little things. In Christ we develop the courage to live together and establish trust.
The fourth principle is Submission. The idea of submission is nearly always felt to be subjection/punishment. Biblical submission is to Christ and then mutually to each other. Submission liberates me from the tyranny of always needing my own way. In faith based community leaders know they too submit. Taking responsibility for wronging another and confessing one’s sins, regardless of the response, is a powerful example of submission.
One of the first acts of submission a person endures in faith based living is telling their story. To give away my story to you, in complete honesty, can be a harrowing experience. You might take part of what I tell you and use it against me. But in following Jesus, no matter what we’ve been through or have done, we now have a common story. Our new story is that we’ve been redeemed by Christ, and that we are now completely set free from the power of sin, the devil, hell and death. The act of telling that story is more powerful than any other kind of story. But it is only the beginning of sharing our lives together.
By submitting I learn that my way is not the only way of doing things. I also learn that my way is open to question. I might work on something for a very long time and you might come along and question it and it might hurt my feelings for a while. But if we are both submitted to Jesus Christ and are committed to one another, the project itself doesn’t belong to me or to you but to Jesus, and however it turns out, Jesus gets the glory.
The fifth principle is Acceptance. To remain in community you must come to accept yourself and find peace. Peace is found in trusting Jesus over your own fear. Accepting life as it is, not as you would have it. Believing that God is doing in you what you cannot do alone. The Grace of God is here now, in the chaos of the world as I perceive it. Many people learn a version of the serenity prayer in recovery circles. Reinhold Niebuhr penned this extended version:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.”

The Apostle Paul wrote the Church at Philippi, “ I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” In a faith based ministry, where we live off of donations, we too can lose the true value of gifts given and received. If we forget that all things are from God, even life itself and all of our abilities, we can get angry at God and become very self-centered. It is not just rich people who struggle with greed.
No matter what you have, without acceptance you will never feel secure. The desert fathers and mothers teach us that even deserts and caves, in isolation from the multitudes in cities, fear is very present and demonic temptations are ever present. No matter what you possess or lack, where you reside or where you wish you lived, unless you are convinced that Christ is Lord of all in your life, you will never find peace.
I hope that something I’ve said today will offer hope and courage on your journey of faith. I believe that living this way is a biblical and healthy expression of faith. It is an encouragement to thousands of souls on a monthly basis. NLEC is known as a staging area for newly homeless individuals from through out the metropolitan area. If only for a short time, as a family of faith we can make strangers feel welcome. We do this not because of how great we are, but because of the awesome Grace of God in Jesus Christ.
In review, the only way to live together and help people with contentment is through Faith in Jesus Christ. Precarity is simply a part of our faith commitment. Everything we have belongs to Jesus and he always provides just enough. Trust is essential, and wherever trust is broken we should pay attention and take the matter to God. Submission, like all the other principles, is something we wrestle with, but laying down my will is necessary to getting along with others. Acceptance is a principle that leads us right back to faith. We are ever finding and needing acceptance at the same time. For today I can accept that God is doing immeasurable more than I can see, ask for, or imagine. When we live by these principles we can be ever demonstrating the love of Jesus to everyone we encounter.

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Sojourners not Vagabonds

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Title: We are Sojourners Not Vagabonds

Dear Friends,

“Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11, English Revised Version) This is not our home. We live in a world where people are constantly on the go. They feel that time is their enemy. They hustle to make money and then can’t remember where they spent it or when. But we are homemaking sojourners. Life is difficult and too short. Everything is constantly changing and it’s very hard to adapt. We wonder if we have what it takes just to survive, let alone live life to its full.

I meet new people all the time who have stories about where they’ve come from, what happened, and how they plan to survive. But most of the stories lack any orientation. Orientation is a function of the mind involving time, place, and personhood. This world’s sense of orientation is based on personal wealth, ego, and isolation. Because their orientation is in Christ, Sojourners make different kinds of homes.

Brian Walsh and Stephen Bouma-Prediger describe the mind of our age in terms of a vagabond: “The vagabond is a pilgrim without a destination; a nomad without an itinerary. The vagabond journeys through an unstructured space; like a wanderer in the desert, who knows only of such trails as are marked with his own footprints, and blown off again by the wind the moment he passes, the vagabond structures the site he happens to occupy at the moment, only to dismantle the structure again as he leaves. Each successive spacing is local and temporary—episodic.” (Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, pg. 252) A vagabond has lost their orientation. There is no particular destination, and no need to arrive on time.

When the Apostle Peter said “abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” we can be sure he wasn’t just talking about sexual lust. All lusts begin with desire, and our desires are interwoven with our imaginations. The things we long for in our waking dreams. Imagination is a powerful thing. It can be filled with fear and hate or with love and empathy. Walter Brueggeman said, “The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.” (Beyond Homelessness, pg. 315-316) When we stop praying for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done we start working to build our own kingdoms and do our own thing.

Sojourners are People of the Book. Our orientation, our worldview, the operating manual, however you want to say it, comes from what God says we are in the Bible. And here’s the thing about God’s Word, it’s not just a bunch of facts or information that we memorize. Being God’s people means attending to the things Jesus taught us. What we think about, what we say, how we love, and who we belong to all matter in the long run. How long is this gonna take? The duration of our lives.

As People of the Book we develop memories that sin had robbed from us in the past. It does not matter how many good things happened to us in life when we were vagabonds, because we lacked orientation. If we found fifty bucks on the street it would be gone by sundown, spent on the riverboat or on lotto tickets. But as sojourners we remember everyday where God has brought us from, and where He has promised we are going.

Sojourners don’t travel alone. In one sense we all stand alone before God. We can’t repent of anyone else’s sins, and we can’t carry the weight of another’s soul. But God has us traveling and living in the real fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As vagabonds, there was some occasional fellowship as it helped us get what we wanted. Free love, free food, free room and board occasionally and free opinions, but in the end we really didn’t mean to be committed to each other. Love was always too strong of a word. Love involves trust and vulnerability, and vulnerability brought up pain. But as a sojourner, we live out a type of commitment that is truly impossible without the Spirit of God. We learn the price of mutual regard and become willing to pay it (like the sign says out in the lobby). It costs a lot to live like this. It cost Jesus Christ his life. And when Jesus said to follow by denying ourselves and taking up the cross, we can be sure that knowing Him involves commitment.

The third mark of a sojourner is in hospitality. As a vagabond attempting to survive, we were taught that protecting our possessions and hiding them away was the only way to keep them. We learned as consumers that enough was never enough. New toys grow old by the next year, and real security was in grabbing as much material and space as possible as a way of gaining leverage for future purchasing. We picked our guests very carefully and spread our influence and reputation wisely. Sojourners think of their possessions very differently. They begin with a confidence that God has provided just what was needed in the past, is providing what they have now, and will provide as needed in the future. For this reason, what they have has been freely given and so they freely give it away. They work hard and instead of marking time in terms of money, they are grateful for each day they have to be able to serve.

Hebrews 13:2-3 says: “Do not forget or neglect or refuse to extend hospitality to strangers [in the brotherhood–being friendly, cordial, and gracious, sharing the comforts of your home and doing your part generously], for through it some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner, and those who are ill-treated, since you also are liable to bodily sufferings.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly thought to myself “there certainly aren’t any angels around here.” But such an attitude lacks all imagination. The text is not telling us to be on the look out for people with hidden wings or halos under their hat, but to never overlook the stranger in need. We should be reminded of Lot in the book of Genesis. The Lord’s messenger came to him when he lived in the wicked city of Sodom and brought him the warning that would save his family. I find that when my heart is not cold, the Lord regularly uses complete strangers to bless me with kindness and gratitude.

More important than angels, we can’t forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35-36 that he comes to us as the least of these hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. Hebrews 13:3 calls us to true empathy. We don’t just feel bad for prisoners, we remember them as fellow prisoners. When we encounter injustice, and there is plenty to go around, we remember that we ourselves suffer easily. Sojourners care about justice: housing for the homeless and low income, fair wages that come not just at the employer’s convenience, and care for Creation instead of exploitation.

Wendell Berry reminds us that, “The health of nature is the primary ground of hope—if we can find the humility and wisdom to accept nature as our teacher.” (Beyond Homelessness, pg. 319) With new eyes to see we can look around at the good earth God has created and realize that for all we may have done to harm her, she is still here to sustain and teach us.

God calls us by name in His Son Jesus Christ, and with this call to be His people we know who we are. The God who created this world has not abandoned us. He calls us to be a People of Imagination who do not succumb to this world’s disorientation; to the life of a short minded vagabond. We are meant for love and community, not simply survival.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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The quagmire of faith and electoral politics

Reviews of Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama and Dan Berrigan’s The Kings and Their gods: the pathology of power

During the campaign season I get the distinct impression that the conventions are as much worship services and rock concerts as political rallies. I hate having my buttons pushed, so to speak. Every word and image is carefully constructed, from the use of light to create warmth, to the careful placement and timing of every person’s appearance. The Party offers assurance, security, and yes faith, that we finally have hope, we will finally have Change, where the alternative is more of the same. And who doesn’t want change? I can’t help but feel a great deal of ambivalence about it all. Why can’t we go back to the days when people made up their minds and voted without so much influence, so much money spent on rallies and campaigns to make us feel empowered. And then I remember that we are a people expected to do nothing until we’re told by advertisers, and that is truly scary. The harbingers of freedom of speech for the world cannot think for themselves unless they’re being overcome by chatter.

This is the milieu in which I think about faith in politics. The God-o-meter has about the right feel to it, measuring God-talk on a weekly basis. Here are two book reviews that offer very different approaches to faith and power. I’ve been home kid-watching and being sick for the last week, but in the meantime I’ve been pondering how we may rightly speak about God’s influence and role in twentieth century ruling offices.

ISBN 978-1595552501

Thomas Nelson, 2008.

192 pages.

I have to say quite honestly that Stephen Mansfield’s new book The Faith of Barack Obama took me by surprise. I knew Mansfield as the 2004 best-selling author of The Faith of George W. Bush. With that book Mansfield sold Evangelicals perhaps what they were already looking for in their President—the assurance that indeed, he was the man of faith they suspected they needed. Evangelicals put “their” man back in office and the rest is history right? Worse yet, Mansfield’s book helped to inspire the movie “George W. Bush: Faith in the White House,” which I reviewed as perhaps the most egregious example of modern religio-political propaganda on film. (This movie, incidentally, has continued to air on Christian television long after Bush’s succession to the White House, it is presumed, to continue to inspire the faithful during hard times.) Bush, according to Mansfield and the film’s director David Balsiger, was America’s first truly sincere born-again president, anointed, called of God, to “do some good.” This finds its way back into Mansfield’s book The Faith of Barack Obama in Mansfield’s interview with evangelist James Robison. According to Robison, Bush told him long before the first election,

“I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can’t explain it but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen and, at that time, my country is going to need me. I know it won’t be easy, on me or my family, but God wants me to do it. In fact, I really don’t want to run. . . . My life will never be the same. But I know God wants me to do this and I must do it.” (pg. 125)

Here was George, anointed and obeying God’s call, but then, according to Mansfield, what happened?

“To the extent that his presidency was a proving ground for innovative policies—faith based initiatives, a doctrine of preemptive military action, a neoconservative faith in America as the guarantor of global democracy—his administration’s missteps wrapped those policies in an aura of failure. His years in office were best summarized by journalist and professor Marvin Olasky, once Bush’s mentor on faith-based social policy, when he said that the Bush team reinvented politics but failed to reinvent governance. It was true. In the end, there was no galvanizing vision, no rallying dream to pull the nation through.” (pg. 126)

How times have changed. In this latest book I wonder whether Mansfield is not trying out a new audience. He admits that the Religious Right has seen its day and says that Barack Obama reflects the kind of faith indicative of our postmodern times. Mansfield carefully and deliberately works to explain Barack Obama ‘s faith, presumably for those inclined to misunderstand, and even hate him. I give Steven credit for wanting to dispel the rumors being perpetuated about Obama being a closet Muslim extremist. I think it also noble that he go to great lengths to humanize and contextualize Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Perhaps this book can provoke some thinking among those less interested in really knowing Obama. But in the end, this book never really delivers on what it wants to offer. In the final chapter, “A Time to Heal,” Mansfield suggests that Obama may just be the healer this nation needs to bring us together. This is curious, given that the author himself makes it clear elsewhere that he is not supporting Obama and won’t be voting for him in November. Further, even with all the sentimentality, there is a strong undercurrent of sympathy for the “old” Religious Right in the book.

Mansfield uses three pages (97-99) to sound out on Obama’s overreaching prochoice voting record, “more prochoice than even NARAL required. . . . for babies who survived abortion to then be exposed and left to die.” These three pages could have been plucked out verbatim and used as a press release for the Religious Right only two weeks ago in order to further help McCain’s campaign just after their little forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback church.

My biggest problem with The Faith of Barack Obama is really with the author’s whole “inspirational faith” program overall. I didn’t know he had such an irenic, conciliatory, open minded approach in him. But I strongly suggest that his whole program is wrong theologically. Stephen Mansfield is a former pastor who is now a very popular biographer, not just for presidents in waiting, but also for a former senator, the pope, and the teacher and evangelist, Derek Prince. Mansfield deals in narratives, inspirational stories that are timely, provocative, and inspirational. Readers are meant to relate to his subjects in profound ways. If the books inspire faithfulness and devotion toward the subject, wonderful. If malice and anger, so be it. It really depends on the reader. Faith is a provocative topic, especially where power and money are concerned.

The author doesn’t delve too deeply into the nature of his faith claims or arguments. His search into Barack Obama’s faith doesn’t even need a firsthand interview with the subject himself. He’s content to sift through the interviews and sources already available. The fullest extent of his research involved actually visiting Trinity UCC church on the south side of Chicago. Mansfield’s books are quick reads. They’re very similar to other books you’d pick up in a small airline bookstore on your way to catch a flight. My frustration with The Faith of Barack Obama lies in the fact that he never really pushes a discussion of faith in politics any further than the sound bites perpetuated by the Religious Right and Left for the last decade. Once again, Mansfield’s narrative reinforces what we already know about politics, much promise, little delivery. This doesn’t inspire my faith, or any hope in the future. He does demonstrate that journalists of the Religious Right can grow more flexible with the changing times. They may not agree with where faith in politics is going, but they can seem sympathetic.

978-0802860439

Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008

202 pages

In stark contrast to Stephen Mansfield’s book, comes Daniel Berrigan’s new book The Kings and their gods: the pathology of power. I asked for a review copy of this book because I believe we desperately need prophetic critical witnesses of America’s own pathological claim on world-wide empire. I’ve heard a thing or two about Daniel Berrigan’s witness. I know of his years as a fugitive from the law, living in hiding out with lawyer and author William Stringfellow. I know of his community, Jonah House, and the ways and means of the Ploughshare actions, pouring blood over missile silos and beating on them with household hammers. But before this reading, I’m not sure I knew so much about Berrigan’s biblical theology. The Kings and their gods wrestles with the books of first and second Kings. It’s a modern eye cast over the writers, the editors, the history makers of the Bible at this time.

The search for Yahweh’s work in the life of David, Solomon, and his predecessors is largely a cry, “Where?” and usually places the judgment “Gone!” God is replaced in Berrigan’s retelling with the god Solomon assumes is present, the national god who sees and, of course, approves. Berrigan assures us that the prophets will later speak and make it clear that Yahweh is very different. But Berrigan says that without a prophetic witness, Solomon’s forty year reign of peace, far from being a fulfillment of God’s promise, is actually empty of Yahweh’s guidance.

I believe this reading of the Scriptures does violence to any sort of coherent biblical theology. Berrigan wants to extricate God anywhere there is violence or oppression in Israel. He sees pathology and later interpretation imposed anywhere he feels Solomon is too drunk on hubris to really be hearing God. Berrigan is bravely facing Israel’s ugly human history, but he is also imposing an extrabiblical revision on it, foreign to the way Israel saw itself, and the way Jesus understood Israel’s history. For this reason, far from setting an example for us in this age of the pathology of power in Scriptures, Berrigan tries to neatly rearrange “clean” and “dirty” moments of history wherein Israel follows Yahweh or is led by its own gods. This misses the point entirely.

In the Bible, whether God is traveling with Israel in the wilderness, residing with them in a tent, or whether he fills Solomon’s wealthy and majestic temple to His Name, God remains the same. He wants to be present near His people. He wants to provide them with rest. So in the New Testament we see Jesus fulfilling God’s covenant as David’s Son, providing true wealth and a true temple in Himself for humanity. In Hebrews 4 we are finally told of a rest fulfilled in Christ. Jesus himself embodies the roles of prophet, priest, and king, in all the ways in which Israel’s greatest examples miserably failed.

The other apparent problem to me with this book is in the singular reading of Kings without the use of the other histories and writings in the Bible, such as Proverbs, first and second Samuel, Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, etc. The account of the Kings is devoid of critical witness left alone.

Berrigan’s judgment that God is instead a kingly pathology is no real help. He guides us through the pain of the nation’s sin, but also accuses God for being their God, relegating Him to the role of lesser god. This is a shame. Would that he’d done biblical theology instead of wallowing in writer-centric pontification. It would have made his valid points, that we remain messed up as a nation and as a church not having learned Israel’s lessons, much sweeter.

Where Stephen Mansfield is content to see and bless faith among the powerful in whatever form, Daniel Berrigan is eager to curse the sins in Israel’s regal history and relate them to our own to the degree that he seems to believe that any rulers cannot possibly be used of God. Both of these books illustrate a way of speaking about power that falls short. It’s true that Americans are still far too comfortable speaking about faith in order to win favor. Electoral politics is a quagmire for biblical faith. I don’t quite know what else to say.

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Hold it right there Rick Warren

I was away when Rick Warren’s Saddleback forum aired. Brett McKracken, managing editor of Biola magazine, gives the Pros and Cons of Rick Warren as the new James Dobson. This blog has all the videos of it together and links to the transcripts, near as I can tell. Personally, I continue to be disgusted that Evangelicals feel they have every right to help the nation decide who to vote for. I find it offensive that Rick Warren would use so much money getting his name and church on the major networks—for Jesus. There are no little sit-downs with Presidential Candidates. To call yourself their personal friends right before the candidate’s perspective Party conventions is a power play, plain and simple.

I’d like to address Rick Warren’s use of the word Worldview. At the very beginning of the forum he says that faith and worldview are the same thing. That’s just dead wrong. He then asks the candidates about their faith in terms of worldview. The idea of Worldview is actually a philosophical construct. It is very old and yet Evangelicals have coined the term so closely to faith, that Rick Warren has here actually made the two one. The original word in German is Weltanschauung. Faith is not a perspective. Faith has an object: God. Faith is nothing without its object. This is very important. In a terribly ad hoc, sloppy manner, Rick Warren here turns faith into a way of seeing the world in order to identify with a presidential candidate. That’s just sick. I don’t believe I’m just haggling over words here. Theology and Philosophy, while both relating to cognitive belief, are distinct. In blurring the lines Rick Warren is really out of line.

I first read about the forum in the Dallas Morning News, in an article titled, “McCain, Obama share their views on evil, marriage, abortion at faith forum.” The article describes the differences in candidate response to the question: “At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?” This question is what this whole forum will be remembered by. Here’s the video. The question falls at 3:48. Look at Obama’s total answer. I don’t care for his reply to this direct question, but he does give a thorough apologetic for the Democratic Party position. No surprise. His point that abortions have not decreased under President Bush is an important one, but I think it has been ignored.

For John McCain on the other hand, the crowd gave him a twelve second ovation in reply to the answer: “At the moment of human conception.” Does this question not seem framed to give them what they want to hear? Here’s the video, the same question on abortion starts at 3:15:

His actual reply after the applause was short and (for Republicans) sweet. “I have had a pro-life record for years.” Enough said. But is it really enough? Are pro-life politicians really delivering? Have they overturned Roe v. Wade? Have the made life better for babies, for children or for mothers seeking abortions? The question was about human rights. Obama seemed to say that it was a large question. McCain parsed code words. I don’t think either candidate dealt with the question, because I don’t think the question was as deep as it pretended to be.

The Dallas Morning News typified it all by giving Richard Land the last word on Obama and McCain:

“I’ll take a third-class fireman over a first-class arsonist,” said Mr. Land.

And there you have it folks. Once again Evangelicals are given a pass on having to think. The right candidate again, drumroll please, is Republican. What a surprise. And in the name of bipartisan friendship Rick Warren does with a smile and an awww shucks demeanor what cold old Jim Dobson can’t do anymore—give Evangelicals a reason to vote on solely on abortion.

What would have been the better approach? Let people make up their own mind! Dissolve this stupid thing called “the Evangelical vote” altogether. Stop playing politics along with the world and just be a Christian. Voting for the President is actually the least important thing we can do as political people. Loving God and our neighbors is the most important. At best Saddleback’s forum was a distraction. At worst it was a tool for political power for the Religious Right.

One last funny note though, at one point (McCain video 2, :24 in) Warren says that he invited a couple hundred thousand of his personal friends to send in questions. Maybe THIS understanding of the words “personal friends” is how we should understand it every time he says it! So when he calls Obama and McCain personal friends he means the same thing. EVERYONE is a personal friend. Well, as a “personal friend” to Rick Warren, let me say this:

“Please pick your friends better Rick. Not everyone is really your friend. It doesn’t help us to understand friendship, or people, when everyone is a friend. . . . just as it doesn’t help us understand faith when you blur it with Worldview.”

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